Independent wields 'Animal Adventure'

Independent distributors have begun rising from the dead in TV syndication: The NBC O&Os pulled a major surprise in February by picking up the “Crosswords” gameshow from Program Partners, and last year, Debmar-Mercury presold the “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” sitcom to TBS and to TV stations owned by Fox, Tribune and other groups.

But a third indie, Litton Entertainment, is also starting to grab the attention of the industry after two decades of beating the bushes to scare up sales of the latest weekly fang-and-claw half-hour hosted by Jack Hanna.

“Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures” is still a mainstay of Litton’s portfolio, along with another nature half-hour, “Exploration with Jarod Miller,” complemented by “Baywatch” reruns, the reality shows “Home Team” and “Nascar Angels,” and the financial-news half-hour “Business Week Weekend.”

A privately held company, Litton, based in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., racked up $30 million or so in revenues in the last year, according to various estimates.

Litton touched off some trade ripples last week by engineering a deal with the Peace Arch Entertainment Group to buy U.S.-syndication rights to 85 low-budget movies from the Castle Hill library bundled into four separate packages.

The Castle Hill package is Litton’s first foray into syndicated movies, and experts like Garnett Losak, VP of programming for Petry TV, the rep firm, say Litton may be in for a rude awakening.

“Movies are a tough sell,” Losak says, pointing to the drastic cutback in the number of timeslots for movies on TV stations beginning in the late ’80s, when new networks started cropping up like Fox, followed by CW (a merger of UPN and the WB), Ion (formerly Pax TV) and MyNetworkTV, all of them gobbling up multiple hours of station real estate.

But Dave Morgan, the zealous, soft-spoken president and CEO of Litton, is convinced movies could start inching their way back onto the schedules, particularly in advance of 2008, a presidential-election year. Those quadrennial years gin up the demand for 30-second spots by political candidates, pushing station execs into setting aside as much commercial time as possible for local sale (at inflated prices).

Since the distributors of most five-a-week syndicated series demand lots of 30-second spots in the stations’ schedules as part of their deal, Morgan says Litton could gain an edge with its movies, because it’s not asking for one second of station time: The movie contracts call for cash only.

And, beyond 2008, Bill Carroll, VP of programming for Katz TV, another rep firm, says more outlets could crop up for movies, as TV stations “create a number of new digital channels, which will need lots of product. And movies are desirable product, especially when the digital services can buy multiple runs over a number of years.” (Actually three years, according to Pete Sniderman, VP of business affairs for Litton.)

But to make an impact in TV syndication similar to that of his two biggest indie rivals, Program Partners and Debmar-Mercury, Morgan knows he’s going to have to eventually come up with a firstrun strip that elbows its way into reasonably visible time periods. (Stations banished Litton’s previous strip “Ask Rita,” a comedy-fueled talkshow hosted by Rita Rudner, to the wee hours of the night.)

Morgan is gung-ho to expand, saying that Litton’s development office in L.A., run by its VP of production Bryan Curb, has two strip projects in development for the fall of 2008. He declines to be more specific, citing competitive reasons.

But Morgan’s optimism may not be completely unfounded. TV syndication is coming off the worst development season in decades; the major distribs, fed up by an 80%-plus failure rate among rookie shows, have become gun-shy.

Behemoths like CBS Paramount, whose shows dominate so many station time periods, hesitate to develop new syndicated shows, because if one of them succeeds, it’ll be at the expense of an existing Par series such as “Montel” or “Judge Joe Brown.”

“If a so-called little guy like Litton develops an interesting project for stripping next year,” says Carroll, “the TV stations will look very favorably on that project.”

Or, as Art Moore, VP of programming for WABC-TV New York, puts it: “If there’s a void in the station director’s schedule, he doesn’t care who fills it.”

Even if it’s a South Carolina company whose main strategy is to zig when the majors are zagging.

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